Chocolate covered magic mushrooms

Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on where imagined futures, games, and politics, policy and action connect. Email: Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost

This week, I had one of the best conversations I’ve had in a long time, with Paula Escuarda and Andrew Brennwald for the climate game development podcast ‘Doing Our Bit’. Paula and Andrew play leading roles in the International Game Developers Association’s Climate Special Interest Group — the IGDA Climate SIG (it’s a mouthful). The Climate SIG is a lovely, active, idealistic community of game developers, researchers and other folks dedicated to mobilizing gaming for the climate cause.

Paula is a senior strategist in UX at Xbox where she thinks about games and inclusion, social change, sustainability and participatory community building. Andrew is the founder of Dream Beaver studios where he is working on a very cool soil ecology game. Both of them are truly amazing, inspiring human beings, full of energy and running over with original thoughts.

In the episode, we spoke about the limits of what my colleagues in game development education sometimes disparagingly call ‘chocolate covered broccoli’ when discussing game design for societal change. This refers to the misguided impulse to use the chocolate of gaming to make the broccoli — the ‘boring’ societal change stuff — ‘fun’. The desire to use games or ‘gamification’ to make boring stuff more digestible is widespread among scientists, policy makers, and others. I am approached almost every day by someone who wants to talk about ‘gamifying’ some sustainability issue or decision making process. It’s understandable, but it doesn’t really seem to work. ‘Gaming’ isn’t a coating you apply; actual games work because they’re engaging, through and through. Their mechanics, their storytelling, their characters and world building, their art, their music — all these things work together to make a game sing, and to draw players to it. The idea to add a bit of gaming tastiness to a seemingly unattractive subject undervalues the immense power of games to truly move us. Nevertheless, in the podcast, we talked about whether there’s still a need to ‘hide the vegetables’ in the meal, even if you’re focusing more on a game that’s actually primarily meant to be engaging and fun.

The conversation got me thinking about this metaphor — hiding the broccoli in the chocolate. My sense is that it demonstrates something that is limiting in current thinking around games and sustainability. Implicit in this metaphor is, of course, that using a chocolate game ‘coating’ around something that is supposedly less attractive like broccoli is a superficial way of thinking about games for change. That games should be fun/chocolate all the way down. Or maybe that we could focus on the fact that broccoli — climate change as an issue — is actually tasty and that applying a thin layer of chocolate (or gamification) is just misguided and ruins the original taste.

There’s certainly an important role for games that try to engage you with real systems and problems that might otherwise be more inaccessible or hard to engage with. Speaking to this, Andrew argued that game developers should focus on a specific, concrete slice of change around the climate challenge. For him, he explained, it’s soil ecology. For me, it’s climate politics and power struggles — the spicier side of the climate challenge. I discussed my focus on climate court cases, the topic of a game we are starting to develop. More broadly, in our ‘games for better futures’ community, we are discussing games as a way to connect to direct, political action and challenges to specific incumbent power structures.

At another level, however, it occurred to me that I don’t feel like many of us are trying to feed people a vegetable at all. I think it’s something very different. It might be closer to magic mushrooms. Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.

First of all, I dislike the implication of slyly trying to feed people anything. I come from the world of participatory visioning and scenario processes. There, we’re not ‘feeding’ or persuading people. It’s a process of shared empowerment and making sense of the world between different societal groups. That’s not to deny our own agendas, of course — we’re still trying to save the planet. But it’s certainly more of a multi-directional, collaborative process.

That said, I would replace broccoli with magic mushrooms because I believe that a real, under-explored space for impactful games lies in a direction that is closer to the effects of psychedelics than science communication or education. When used responsibly, psychedelics (translation: ‘mind- or soul-revealing’) are not really about nice visual effects, or anything like that. They’re about opening ourselves to the richness of our own experience; to the richness of the world; and to our inter-connectedness with others and with life. They’re about confronting our own struggles, deconstructing our limiting narratives, and accessing our own inner depths and resources. Research on the therapeutic effects of psychedelics has recently restarted and is pointing to some significant, transformative effects. I’d recommend the new Netflix show ‘How to Change Your Mind’ since it hits a good clear tone about the therapeutic and inspirational value of this kind of experience.

In the Netflix show How to Change Your Mind, the therapeutic and transformative possibilities of psychedelics are explored — for instance, to help relieve the anxiety of terminally ill patients.

Importantly however, psychedelic experience is not limited to substances. As my friends Aidan Lyon (a philosopher on the psychedelic) and Rosa Lewis (an imaginal practice teacher) discuss, it can be described more generally as a kind of experience tuned to opening previously hidden aspects of being alive. That’s why films, music, and, yes, games can be ‘psychedelic’. They can facilitate a way of thinking, feeling and experiencing that opens us to ambiguity, ineffability, and wonder. Meditation is psychedelic. Therapy is psychedelic. Yoga is psychedelic. Deep engagement with nature is psychedelic. Certain people can be very, very psychedelic. Whatever your understandable reservations might be about the use of psychedelic substances, that is not the point I am trying to make here — instead, I think the psychedelic mode in general as a reference point could be powerful for games.

Replacing broccoli with magic mushrooms resonates with me as a metaphor of what we’d like to do with games because I feel like societies could genuinely be transformed if games are recognized for their potential for opening up human experience, rather than producing specific behavior or attitude changes. When we become more complete, connected, ecologically entangled humans, many opportunities for change open up. We might be less preoccupied with our fears and self image, and more open, in a general sense, to the world and its problems. More courageous. More connective and communicative. More imaginative.

I told the podcasters that playing the gothy, edgy 90s tabletop role playing game Vampire the Masquerade in high school forever blew my mind open regarding the power of collective imagination — much to Paula’s glee especially. That game is, without a doubt, the reason I’m in this job and why I am writing this to you right now. Other people in my game groups were similarly affected and empowered by these shared experiences that unlocked our imaginations. And the game wasn’t trying to teach us any science lessons. Similarly, I think many of the games that touch us deeply, that open up our experiences, were not designed to communicate a specific message — they were designed to be expressive and resonant.

What happens when games are designed like psychedelics? To touch us in our deepest cores, to help us learn new things about ourselves, develop new relationships to our hidden parts, explore our inter-connectedness with the world, and imagine new possibilities, without game designers dictating what these might be? Games researcher Alenda Chang has written about the possibilities of making game ecosystems more alive, more ‘rambunctious’, and though it is not framed as such, her principles, as well as her examples like ‘Walden, A Game’ can certainly be seen through the psychedelic lens. My friend and colleague Nicky Heijmen and I are building on Alenda’s work, investigating how games can play with the sense of being a subject and a self. We look at examples like Soma and Nier: Automata that create discontinuities and distortions in the self-perspective. In the podcast, I mentioned Bloodborne, which, if you ask me, is an acutely psychedelic game, where the very sense of reality is lost in the madness of the various layers of nightmare and dream. It’s a dark, horrifying world, but it also feeds the imagination like nothing else — and speaks to the limits of human knowledge, power, and transformation. A fascinating article unpacks how its older sibling Dark Souls pulls out all the stops to create awe out of confusion and ambiguity. On the lighter psychedelic side, there are games like Journey that offers a beautiful, flowy, wordless life-and-death narrative that reminds of a psychedelic experience. These games are widely considered to be some of the most deeply resonant games ever made.

What excites me about this idea of ‘psychedelic games for change’ is that it connects to other cool streams of thinking and action. This week I was part of a symposium on music and sustainability with my friend and colleague Josie Chambers and the excellent musician and researcher Steve Williams, who reminded me of work by David Maggs. Maggs advocates for moving beyond the use of art to communicate concrete sustainability messages that make us ‘know more, feel worse’. Instead, he argues for art that stimulates our collective imagination and ‘escape this status quo, in joyful, welcoming, exuberant, and empowering ways.’ A very psychedelic statement. In another recent bit of writing for the Rotterdam Architecture Biennale, I draw on the work of Cassie Robinson to advocate that we should understand the open imaginative potential game industry through the lens of imagination infrastructuring. The focus on reflection, psychology and experience that the psychedelic mode brings also connects to work in games and mental health by people like Isabela Granic and her lab — who, to my surprise and delight, are now working with another personal connection, meditation teacher Vincent Horn, to explore the overlap between games and meditation practice. I had a conversation with Phoebe Tickell about imagination activism, which, through the use of imaginative, embodied exercises also comes close to the psychedelic mode. So many connections to be made.

In the meantime, however, I think people working on games and climate are still typically pretty far removed from this kind of thinking. Colleagues in the CreaTures research project like Ruth Catlow from Furtherfield and her interspecies LARP ‘The Treaty of Finsbury Park’ are an exception, as is the utterly unique, multi-sensory ‘Tree VR’ experience developed by Milica Zec. But such experiences are not yet the rule. So there is much to be explored; including the need to understand the psychedelic mode itself — especially and specifically outside of the realm of psychedelic substances — more generally as well. Finally, I think the psychedelic approach to games can also support more concrete games-based work.

Tree VR (2017)

Chocolate covered broccoli sounds gross, for a reason. Chocolate covered magic mushrooms actually exist. The transformative mushroom part may not always be easy to swallow, and it may need a bit of chocolate to go down, but it’s certainly intriguing as hell. And after having fully digested it, we might emerge as new creatures altogether.

Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!



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An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.